Champagne Tastes, Beer Budget: The New Fort McMurray

When I first arrived in Fort McMurray 17 years ago, the real boom hadn’t even quite yet begun. You could feel the simmering of it, like that moment when a pot on the stove is just beginning to boil with the tiniest of bubbles breaking the surface. But just like that pot, when the heat was turned higher with rocketing oil prices, the simmer became a full-on boil, with the occasional boil-over as a city not quite ready for a boom in population struggled with infrastructure deficits and the woes that accompany a fast injection of people and money. We spent fast and we spent hard, both on a governmental and personal level, as evidenced by recent stories on the amount of debt incurred by residents of the region.

And then, just like a pot whisked off the stove, the boil stopped. Oil prices began dropping, and the bubbling began to lessen…and now it is back to a simmer again and the odds of a full boil – those days of tremendous boom based on expectations and predictions of $200/barrel of oil – seem unlikely to surface again.

The boom-bust nature of resource based towns is well understood; from the era of gold mining to oil drilling, this aspect of communities built on a sole-industry has never really changed. I have now lived in two such places, one based on oil and one based on gold, and one of the most remarkable things about them has always been their flexibility and ability to adapt to ever-changing economic situations, knowing the tide will ebb and flow as it does with a resource.

I had always thought this true for Fort McMurray as well, but this most recent downturn in the economy has me deeply worried, as something I had always before discounted as a factor in our get ‘er done, pioneer and maverick attitude has taken firm root: entitlement.

I hate that word, you know. I have in fact fought against it, as there was no way I could acknowledge that I or the members of my beloved community would ever or could ever be “entitled”, so spoiled that we have come to expect the times of boom to never end and become disconnected from the nature of a resource based economy.

But entitlement is something I can no longer ignore. Fort McMurray, once the home of a champagne budget and accompanying champagne tastes, now finds itself with a beer budget and an unquenched thirst for champagne.

The economic realities have undoubtedly changed; you can sense it in every corner, and that was before the fire in 2016 that swept through an already economically challenged region and took yet another savage punch at it.

Once I was very secure in our resiliency; not just in our ability to withstand the blows but to adapt to the changes with ease. This time, though, I see us struggling as we try to balance our wants with our needs, and find our champagne tastes challenged by the beer budget.

We were once the home of high disposable incomes, but with the economic changes we have seen diminished overtime, bonuses and wages. We have seen job losses, project delays and cancellations and people leaving. But still, on some level, we both yearn and expect the Fort McMurray of yesterday.

Do you know how resource based communities survive? Because they can adapt. They understand that good times (and bad times) can spin on a dime and that the bright days of yesterday can give way to dark days of tomorrow, and vice versa. The communities that understand this withstand the vagaries of a resource economy; those that fail to understand it will eventually fall.

I think we got complacent about the whole boom thing. And when I say “we”, I don’t mean “just you”. I mean me, too. After all, I invested all I have in this community, bought a house, raised a child here and built my life in a place where it can all go bust on a moment’s notice. I don’t regret a moment of that, but never did it occur to me that I could lose tens of thousands of dollars in home equity; never did I think I would wonder and worry about our economic future. It just seemed like the good days of the economy would never end, and then, of course, they did.

And now, things are different. If we want to have local shops and services then we bloody well better support them or they will disappear. If we want sustainability then we have to recognize we may need to give up some of our “wants” in order to achieve our actual needs – and on occasion that may sting. And we need to realize that some of the changes headed our way, like Bill 21/Bill 8, have the potential to forever alter our region.

I fear that we have not yet shed the champagne tastes we developed during the boom, and yet we have now encountered the beer budget of the bust. This discrepancy is the real risk to our community, and if we cannot counter it then we will face a real challenge: our inability to adapt to the bust end of the cycle.

There are hard decisions ahead. We are heading into a municipal election, and this next government will be faced with making choices that will affect lives and which will not always be popular because they will require adaptation to a new reality in which the wants must be brought into line with the fiscal realities.

So what do we need to do to make it through this and come out even stronger? I would suggest the following:

  • Accept that which we cannot change and instead seek ways to adapt to it
  • Ask why we are still doing things certain ways and if it continues to make sense to do it that way
  • Stop countering every proposed change with a response that reeks of “but we have always done it this way”
  • Understand the difference between wants and needs
  • Recognize that once we were able to indulge in our wants, but that now needs must take precedence
  • Know that this will not always be easy and may in fact hurt on occasion
  • Support those in this community who fill the needs, like local social profit organizations
  • Reconsider complaints that are based on “the way it used to be” and acknowledge that things are not the same and that things are likely to keep changing
  • Be willing to change
  • Be grateful

Yes, be grateful. Many communities will never, ever experience the kind of economic exuberance we have. We have so many things for which to be grateful; to now find ourselves whinging about things changing doesn’t seem exactly grateful and instead seems, just a bit, entitled.

I would suggest there are few people in this region more optimistic about the future than I; I have great confidence in our people and in our nature as most of us came here in search of a better life. Few of us came here with much more than our ambition, our commitment and our work ethic, and through hard work we have established our lives in this community. I have always likened us to the pioneers who originally settled the prairie provinces, doing so through sheer determination and an incredibly plucky attitude when facing challenges.

We face a new challenge. We face changed, and changing, economic times. If we are obstinate and refuse to change with them, clinging to our champagne tastes as the beer budget descends, we will find ourselves not only struggling, but deeply unhappy. But if we recognize the changes, and understand that beer is pretty damn good and champagne *might* be over-rated, we will be just fine. It will require us to work together, support each other and remember that what we need to achieve in the end is a functional community.

It’s time to put away the high-end bubbly and embrace the beer instead; after all, we are in this for the long haul, so we may as well have a few drinks – ones within our budget – along the way.

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